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Leadership & Organisations

What’s Keeping Women From the Corporate Heights?

What’s Keeping Women From the Corporate Heights?

Why women find it so difficult to access top jobs and why the change takes so long.

Quotas to improve gender balance on corporate boards (and threats to introduce them) have gone some way to pushing Europe in terms of female representation in directorships.  But the fact remains: globally women are astonishingly scarce in the higher spheres of corporate management.  

In the U.S., gender-based discrimination is illegal, yet the June 2014 issue of Fortune magazine reported that the proportion of women CEOs had reached the historical level of 4.8 percent. This was described as “impressive progress”, as in 1998 only one Fortune 500 company was led by a woman. A more accurate statement is that when one starts at (or near) zero any positive change is (almost) infinite progress.

Even in the gender and socially progressive Scandinavian countries female presence in executive management remains pathological: a recent survey reveals that only 3 percent of the 145 largest Scandinavian market capitalisations have a female leader. The same is true in France. It seems all around the world the question is being asked, why do women meet so many hurdles on the way to the top? 

The motivation for this article lies in surprising, even shocking, research findings released recently highlighting reasons that contribute to this sad state of affairs: the multiplicity of conscious and unconscious biases against women (by both genders); the career expectations patterned for men; and the lack of sponsorship available for women. These barriers form a vicious cycle that is most effective in keeping women from the top.

Complex and pervasive biases against women in the workplace

Claudia Goldin, Harvard Professor of Economics, last year published a rigorous study showing that in most occupations, for the same function, women are paid on average 25 percent less than men. One startling part of this research is the constancy of the pay gap over the last decade.  Another is the obliteration of the regularly voiced claim that it is due to women clinching lower-paying jobs: according to Goldin this explains only 15 percent of the gap. Worse, the gap tends to be bigger near the top: 35 percent in finance compared to 11 among nurses.

Another 2014 scientific study, by Desai, Chugh, and Brief, confirms the perverse contributions by men who control the opportunities for progress in most organisations. The findings (from a sample tested across age and Anglo-Saxon geographies) indicate that men whose wives are unemployed are more likely to make decisions that prevent the advancement of qualified women.

Of equal concern are the experiments by Reuben, Sapienza and Zingales who asked “employers” to recruit potential employees for arithmetic tasks. They observed that lower-skilled men were regularly chosen over more experienced and competent women. The explanation lies in the “women are no good at maths” association bias (held by a majority of men and women) that mentally overrides objective data. Such associations are both conscious and unconscious and help us to understand why no woman so far has ever been in charge of CERN, the Geneva-based international physics laboratory, and why less than 7 percent of senior researcher positions there, and only 17 percent of all academic employees, are women. 

CERN does not, of course, explicitly discriminate against women. It is platform for the widely shared and often unconscious “label” (ideology, axiom …) that women are inferior at maths. Even when women present excellent maths credentials (and CERN candidates are not random individuals in the population, they present serious credentials, so the label should not apply), women have to counter implicit negative judgments against them - while men benefit from opposite implicit judgments in their favour.

The biases women face at work are of a similar and pervasive nature as biases faced, for example, by Muslims because of repeated associations between fundamentalist terrorism and Islam. Similarly the profound and unconscious association made by US police officers between blacks and life-threatening danger that substantially differs from that made when the same forces face non-black citizens. 

Patterned for men - An alternative career path leads to nowhere

It would be bad enough if the problem of unfair treatment of women was due solely to a number of mental biases. But there is also the important question of diverging career paths.

Male career paths are well known for their linearity: men traditionally take three to five years of job experience before getting an MBA around the age of 30, are offered a major leadership position at 35, acquire international experience before being made Senior VP at 40/45 and move into the C-suite around the age of 45/50. Each step is up, and this path becomes “the” pattern for all.

Two U.S. researchers, Luce and Hewlett, studied the career trajectories of a large number of women and noted that female executives were more likely to follow paths filled with “horizontal” career interruptions.  Reasons vary and include motherhood, a husband’s career, family commitments to children or aging parents, or personal preferences. Women consider such temporary exits from their career a natural thing.  However, reintegrating back into the organisation and finding a job that suits their talents often proves impossible.

The big hurdle in this case has nothing to do with skills and pertains to women’s deviation from the “standard” career path designed by and for men.  Perverse labelling (conscious or subconscious) sets in as well: women find themselves characterised as unable to be counted on, lacking professional commitment, or presenting insufficient experience given their age.  The solution lies in changing false perceptions and establishing a number of “ladders” that allow women back on the path.

“If he’s sponsoring her, he must like her a lot…”

A third major hurdle to the top is the matter of sponsorship. Sponsoring is key to earning the assignments that allow an individual to show that he or she is “CEO” material.

Recent research by INSEAD Professor Herminia Ibarra carried out jointly with Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, Vice-President and Research Director of Catalyst, an organisation devoted to promoting opportunities for women in business, confirmed that although women enjoy the same career mentoring and coaching as men, critical differences appear in terms of what they identify as “sponsoring” which is significantly inferior to that enjoyed by men. Men tend to sponsor largely other men, those that do look to sponsor a female subordinate will find the value of the association discounted by the thinking “if he’s sponsoring her, he must like her a lot…”.

While this in itself should be bad enough,  Hekman and Foo confirm that minority leaders (including women) who actively sponsor minority candidates (including women) are themselves labelled as less competent than executives whose attitude toward minorities are less positive … unless the latter are white males.

New Behaviours, New Attitudes, and New Requirements to Support the Change

The conclusion to all this is clear: the barriers (behaviors, labels, biases…) that prohibit the progression of women to the top are deep-rooted, pernicious, and ubiquitous … and much more prevalent than we imagine and recognise.

Ending this unfair discrimination against women requires understanding, creativity, commitment and perseverance, and foremost positive action by both men and women.  My colleague Jean-François Manzoni quotes Anais Nin; “We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”   The implication is that the first change we need to make is to see the world as it really is.

The idea that this discrimination will, or ought to, end “voluntarily” just flatly defies the research we have mentioned.  Things are too ingrained. Patterns must be broken. And that is where regulation – such as a quota for women - has its place.  Hopefully temporarily …

Ludo Van Der Heyden
Ludo Van der Heyden is the Chaired Professor in Corporate Governance and Academic Director of the INSEAD Corporate Governance Initiative. He co-directs the International Directors Programme, and the Value Creation for Owners and Directors Programme

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Gender Initiative
The INSEAD Gender Initiative integrates research on the experiences and impact of women in business and society. Its mission is to create and disseminate research and knowledge that advances women leaders and optimises their contributions
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Anonymous User

27/02/2015, 04.54 pm

Hi Mr. Van Heyden,

As a young Gen-Y corporate executive, i read your article with great interest. If i may point out, you didn't include information on Asia and south east asia region in relation to women inc orporate positions.

I am working in a multinational oil & gas company (listed in the Fortune Global 500 companies) in Malaysia. In my country, according to the statistics, there are not many women helming the board of directors role. I wish to see more women "Step Up" and rise to the top. In my opinion, it is not the gender factor. Let's break the glass ceiling. If she has the capabilities and skills to carry out the task and responsibilies, i don't see why a female leader is not suitable to be a CEO or in the board of directors.

I grew up with a working mother. My mum has retired from the work force 3 years ago. While growing up, i was inspired with my mother's capabilities in juggling her family,kids and her career. She has to managed a team of people at her work place. She has been with her company for more than 30 years till she retired. She has devoted her loyalty to the company. I was inspired by her leadership quality and management skills. My mum said to me "You can do it to" Have the passion ,dedication,hard work and good time-management.Sky is the limit".

Nur Farisya Abdul Shukor

Kuala Lumpur,Malaysia


Jacque Vilet

17/02/2015, 01.46 pm

I think we are seeing Gen Y with different attitudes. 99.9% of them grew up with working mothers ---- as opposed to men in top and mid management today. Gen Y women played competitive sports in contrast to older women. Gen Y is used to working in diverse teams; older women/men are more comfortable working independently. There a lot of differences in values/expectations/mindsets between Gen Y and older generations. I think that will have a great impact on womens' success. Also Gen Y males are asking for and getting (Google, Facebook) parental leave of up to 6 months. We will see more of that. It's a different world today. Once the younger generation gets into mid and top management we will see great improvement.


Anonymous User

10/02/2015, 01.20 am

The subject of quotas is clearly taboo in the business world. Many people have the impression that this is just a demand from women to make it to the top by passing the rules of the game. This is not correct.

Without quotas it will take another 80-100 years to solve this problem: what should i tell my daughter about this? She is 3 years old. The conclusion is very sad. Shall i tell her that maybe the dauhgter of her daughter will work on a different environment than i did and she will?

Good to see that experts in the field, and particularly male experts, are starting to be less hesitant to speak up, even though there is some level of hesitation in Ludo's conclusion.


Anonymous User

07/02/2015, 04.52 am

Does it strike anyone else as funny that the quote "we don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are" was attributed to Mr Van de Hayden's colleague Jean-Francois something instead of to the incredible woman Anais Nin who said basically the same thing first? And how many times has a man gotten credit in a meeting for a woman's idea!? Hilarious for us to think we're ever going to fix this!


Anonymous User

06/02/2015, 03.11 pm

Ludo, I completely agree with your assertion, ‘the first change we need to make is to see the world as it really is’. To me, this begins with seeing – and naming – the elephant in the room. In turn, this requires many millions of people, plus countless organisations, to urgently begin very serious, mature conversations about the 'p' word. For some reason, the ‘p’ word gets left out of many discussions that purport to identify root causes of global problems. Maybe this is because, if you are raised within a patriarchal system, (as I’d suggest most of us have been) patriarchy is invisible to you, in the same way that male privilege can be invisible to men, and white privilege can be invisible to white people.

Before anyone makes an immediate judgement that I'm having an unfair go at men, (I'm one myself) let me assure you it's not men in general who are at fault, it's 'men behaving badly', where badly means having a damaging effect on people and planet in the areas of social, economic and environmental sustainability. As bell hooks said, patriarchy has no gender; while it arose from the rules of men, it is now an overarching set of systems in which many women willingly participate as well. Such systems can reward women well – if they are prepared to play the game – which explains why some women leaders appear more ruthless than their male counterparts; they had to adopt that style to get noticed, be accepted then promoted.

If you dig and think deeply enough, you can’t help but conclude that the root cause of global problems is a range of toxic beliefs and behaviours associated with the patriarchal systems that underpin the world’s dominant economies, business entities, governments, societies, cultures and religions. If you'd ever wondered if there was some common link between the slaughtering of indigenous people so miners could access their land ... systemic sexual abuse within religious institutions ... and the GFC notion of 'too big too fail', you will find that common link embedded within the ideals of patriarchy, which has – and this is the worst bit – progressively become institutionalised, and now globalised, to the point where no single entity controls it.

To ‘see the world as it really is’ requires us to come to an understanding that patriarchy reflects an archaic worldview and primitive level of consciousness; an aberrant, unbalanced way of functioning that is now totally at odds with our current reality. (Good news is, as it's not genetic, it's not beyond our control to do something about it.)

The failure to adequately address global problems reflects, within many men in positions of immense power, the patriarchal suppression of nurturing human values such as empathy, humility and collaboration, coupled with the cultivation of beliefs and behaviours around competition, adversarial thinking, domination, entitlement, greed, command and control, divide and conquer, and win-at-all-costs. The suppression of the nurturing values also reinforces an anthropocentric – and within that, a male-centric – ‘operating system’ across humankind. Although these ‘men behaving badly’ may be genuinely smart and sophisticated in lots of ways, when it comes to a mental framework suited to continued human existence, they are running on Windows Vista without the good bits. And, as we are seeing, it’s terribly dangerous when combined with that ‘lizard brain’ part of our mind and advanced technology that can exponentially amplify the resulting dysfunctionality.

Interestingly, Carol Gilligan’s research demonstrated that, when confronted with a moral dilemma, men generally operate out of an ethic of justice, whereas women tend to operate out of an ethic of care. This means men will often sacrifice a relationship in order to comply with the rules, while women are more likely to bend the rules to preserve the relationship. As a way to run a planet, the ethic of justice favoured by men really falls down when what is legal differs markedly from what is moral or ethical. That’s when we have a situation that is on a collision course with the needs of both humanity and planet. In its most extreme form, the psychologically immature patriarchal mind sees itself as superior to, and dominant over all else, and therefore entitled to take whatever it wants. We desperately need an ethic of care, one that views sustainability as a continuum from cellular to planetary.

Solving aspects of major problems without trying to loosen the grip of patriarchy is like upgrading your prison cell – you’re a bit more comfortable, but you’re still trapped and controlled by others. You can give cleaner water or better shoes to slaves, generation after generation, but they are still slaves. If you don’t tackle their slavery, what have you actually achieved? Ignoring the root cause of a problem means it will manifest itself in the same or a different way in the future.

Across all of humanity, the most widespread and discriminatory manifestation of patriarchy is the suppression and exploitation of women and girls. Because of this suppression, I believe Earth’s greatest source of renewable energy is the untapped potential of a billion mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. If humanity is able to turn this spaceship around, it will have much to do with a feminine ethic of care emanating from countless women (plus a large number of men who actually ‘get it’.)

This has lead me to conclude that a critical prerequisite for reducing the damaging aspects of patriarchy on both people and planet is to strengthen the support of women who are currently disengaged from the efforts to improve the state of our world. Which is why my wife and are establishing the entity, ‘Wise Women Will Save the World’. Engaging disengaged women is central to our purpose, because, apart from any other form of activism, we need to catalyse a simultaneous, worldwide, granular approach to eroding patriarchy at every level, and it would be really handy if all the men and women who are not on the ‘behaving badly’ team, rose up to play their part.

May I conclude by urging you to do one thing in the next day or so – raise the topic of patriarchy during a conversation with people, and see where it leads. It’s a conversation our planet needs us to have.


Charanya Kumar

05/02/2015, 07.41 pm

It is interesting to read that we should be able to see the world "as it is". I personally believe this is impossible. I can learn to look at things from multiple perspectives but I don't think a concept of "the world" exists.

I think it is extremely to important to emphasize the importance of skills other than just the quantitative skills that make a leader successful. From my observation I have seen that social and emotional aspects of the leadership are not weighed equal to quantitative abilities. May be, emphasizing on those "soft" aspects more could help women excel in their roles and recognize their ability to hold a company together. While quotas in corporate are good, is there a way B-Schools can feed this into the mid-level managers who grow to become future leaders?

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